Richard Nicastro, PhD looks at the role of emotional safety in secure relationships and steps that can be taken to create it.
When emotional security is lacking…
- “Over the last year we’ve had so many ugly fights that I just don’t trust him with my feelings any more.” ~Lucy, married six years
- “It feels to me like she sends me mixed signals…one moment everything is fine between us, then all of a sudden she’s angry about something and she doesn’t know why. I need something more stable.” ~ Vince, dating eight months
When emotional security is strong and resilient…
- “He’s my rock. I’ve learned over the years that I can trust him with anything!” ~ Barbara, celebrating her thirtieth wedding anniversary
- “We’ve been through some tough times together, and we’ve both said some things I wish could be taken back. But when push comes to shove, we’ve always had each other’s back.” ~ Trish, with her partner for fourteen years
Why Is Emotional Safety So Important for Your Relationship?
Intimate relationships are built on the foundation of emotional safety—part of this foundation includes the knowledge that your partner/spouse has your best interests in mind, that you’ll remain a priority to one another even through the unexpected twists and turns that may cause emotional whiplash. Emotional security acts as a safety net, a buffer that allows you and your partner to be real and genuine with one another without the constant fear that the bottom will drop out.
A relationship devoid of a solid base of emotional security leads to heightened insecurity and, possibly, mistrust. You’re not able to lean into the comforting arms of your relationship when emotional safety is lacking—in fact, your relationship ends up causing you pain rather than acting as a buffer against distress. It’s like being on stage in front of a hostile audience who may boo or throw tomatoes at any moment.
But emotional safety and security isn’t a random event. There are clear steps you and your partner can take to keep this part of your relationship strong.
3 Features of Relationship-Emotional Security
1. Commitment—you show commitment by the choices you make in your relationship; and central to this is the conscious decision to remain exclusive, dedicated and faithful to one another, even when the waters of the relationship get choppy and it starts to feel like your life would be easier without your partner;
2. Emotional Availability and Presence—you’re much more than just a warm body. To feed the relationship foundation, couples need to be emotionally engaged and available for one another (at least more often than not). We make ourselves known to one another by sharing who we are (our feelings, reactions, values, ideas, fears) and by being open and receptive to our partner’s sharing. Couples often report feeling painfully alone when emotional distance becomes the norm.
3. Predictability and Consistency—imagine how disconcerting it would be if your partner acted supportive and loving one day, indifferent and cold the next, then critical the next, only to be followed by a burst of attentiveness and kindness. While this example is extreme, erratic and inconsistent behavior (even subtle forms of inconsistency) can weaken and ultimately destroy the foundation of emotional security.
A rule of thumb: Follow through on your promises, keep your word, and demonstrate your love and support in a reliable fashion.
When emotional safety is repeatedly compromised in a marriage or relationship, couples begin to disengage and close themselves off from each other. While disengagement may be a self-protective maneuver, in the long run, this pattern can lead to such a degree of separateness that before you know it, the relationship is no longer a relationship. Two lives that rarely intersect in meaningful ways cannot equate to a relationship—a relationship arises out of relatedness, a mutual emotional connection that can only grow out of the soil of emotional safety.
No matter the age of your marriage or relationship, learning (and re-learning) about what makes your spouse/partner feel emotionally safe is essential in creating and maintaining a strong relationship foundation.2